Imperialism is a broad term which has a variety of meanings. Generally it is a practice by which powerful nations or peoples seek to extend and maintain control or influence over weaker nations or peoples. Some scholars associate imperialism solely with the economic expansion of capitalist states, and some others reserve it for European expansion after 1870. Although imperialism is similar in meaning to colonialism, and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they should be distinguished. Colonialism usually implies formal political control while Imperialism refers, more broadly, to control or influence that is exercised either formally or informally, directly or indirectly, politically or economically.
Imperialism dates from antiquity, it took many forms throughout the history. History of Imperialism can be divided into four major eras; ancient world, European Imperialism (1400—1750) Imperialism till 19th century and Modern Imperialism.
In the ancient world imperialism manifested itself in a series of great empires that arose when one people, usually representing a particular civilization and religion, attempted to dominate all others by creating monopoly of control. The empire of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire is a salient example in this regard.
European imperialism (1400-1750) aimed at overseas colonial expansion. In this period many competing states established political control over territories in South and Southeast Asia and in the New World. Imperial systems were organized according to the doctrine of mercantilism: Each imperial state attempted to control the trade of its colonies, in order to monopolize the benefits of that trade.
In the mid-19th century the imperialism of free trade appeared. The practice endured in this period even though mercantilism and the pace of formal empire building declined significantly. European, especially British, power and influence were extended informally, mainly through diplomatic and economic means, rather than formally, through direct colonial rule. The imperialism of free trade, however, was short-lived: By the end of the 19th century European powers were once again practicing imperialism in the form of overseas territorial annexation, expanding into Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.
Since the end of World War II, when most of the formal empires were dissolved, what might be called modern economic imperialism has come to predominate. Control is exercised informally and less overtly. European powers have continued to affect significantly the politics and the economics of their former colonies, and they have consequently been accused of neocolonialism, the exercise of effective sovereignty without the formality of colonial rule.
Causes of Imperialism are in variety, historically, states have been motivated to pursue imperialism for a variety of reasons, which may be classified broadly as economic, political, and ideological and reactive. Theories of imperialism break down similarly, according to which motive or motives are viewed as primary.
Economic explanations of imperialism are the most common. Believers of this school of thought hold that states are motivated to dominate others by the need to expand their economies, to acquire raw materials and additional sources of labor, or to find outlets for surplus capital and markets for surplus goods. The most prominent economic theories, linking imperialism with capitalism, are derived from those of Karl Marx. Lenin, for example, explained the European expansion of the late 19th century as the inevitable outcome of the need for the European capitalist economies to export their surplus capital. Similarly, contemporary Marxists explain the postwar expansion of the U.S. into the Third World in terms of economic imperatives. In modern times US hold on Iraq and Afghanistan reveals the same kind of motive.
Secondly, some people are of the opinion that, the political determinants of imperialism, contending that states are motivated to expand primarily by the desire for power, prestige, security, and diplomatic advantages vis-à-vis other states. In this view, late 19th-century French imperialism was intended to restore France’s international prestige after its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
A third set of explanations focuses on ideological or moral motives. According to this perspective, political, cultural, or religious beliefs force states into imperialism as a “missionary activity.” Britain’s colonial empire was motivated at least in part by the idea that it was the “white man’s burden” to civilize “backward” peoples. Germany’s expansion under Hitler was based in large measure on a belief in the inherent superiority of German national culture. The desire of the India to promote their cultural heritage in Kashmir and to maintain political stability in the territory is also examples of imperialism driven by moral and ideological concerns.
Finally, some explanations of imperialism focus not on the motives of powerful states but rather on the political circumstances in weaker states. The argument holds that powerful states may not intend to expand, but may be forced to by instability on the periphery; new imperial actions result from past imperial commitments. The British conquest of India and the Russian colonization of Central Asia in the 19th century are classic examples of reactive imperialism.
Because imperialism is so often viewed as economically motivated, discussions of its effects also tend to revolve around economic issues. Disagreement arises between two school of thoughts. One holds that imperialism implies exploitation and is responsible for the underdevelopment and economic stagnation of the poor nations, and others argue that although the rich nations benefit from imperialism, the poor nations also benefit, at least in the long run.
The political and psychological effects of imperialism are equally difficult to determine. Imperialism has proven both destructive and creative: For better or worse, it has destroyed traditional institutions and ways of thinking and has replaced them with the habits and mentality of the Western world.
Filed under: World Affairs